We open Season 2 of Last Day with a tale of two Kevins. One is Sergeant Kevin Briggs, also known as the guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge. The other is Kevin Berthia, an Oakland native who drove to that bridge on March 11, 2005 with the intent of ending his life. This week, we tell the larger story behind a moment of intervention — what led up to it and what happened in the 15 years since. We’re also joined by Courtney Knowles, our advisor at the Jed Foundation, who’s here to poke holes in our narrative.
Season 2 of Last Day is created in partnership with The Jed Foundation. The Jed Foundation (JED) empowers teens and young adults with the skills and support to grow into healthy, thriving adults. You can find tips, tools and resources for taking care of your emotional health available at: www.jedcares.org/lastday
Resources from the episode:
- Kevin Berthia has a new foundation! Check it out here.
- Kevin Briggs can be booked to speak about crisis management and suicide prevention through Pivotal Points.
- To learn more about recommendations for reporting on suicide, visit https://reportingonsuicide.org/
If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or feeling hopeless, it’s important to talk to someone about it now. Contact one of the resources below for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text line: Text “Connect” to 741-741
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Support the show by checking out our sponsors:
- The Jane Club is a community for women, mothers, and caretakers. Their all-inclusive virtual membership, the Connected Jane, offers daily meditations, fitness classes, community check-in’s and evening social gatherings for only $50 per month. Head to janeclub.com and use the code INSIDER JANE FF for $10 off your first month.
- What you put on your face matters. True Botanicals is MADE SAFE® certified – meaning they are made without toxic ingredients. Try them for yourself! Head to truebotanicals.com/lastday to get 15% off your first purchase.
- Look no further than Rothys for a shoe that’s all about comfort and sustainability. They’re knit from repurposed plastic water bottles – and they’re machine washable! Head to rothys.com/lastday to check them out.
To follow along with a transcript and/or take notes for friends and family, go to https://www.lemonadamedia.com/show/last-day shortly after the air date.
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Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Support for the last day comes from the JED Foundation. JED takes a comprehensive approach to protect mental health and preventing suicide among teens and young adults with programs for individuals, families, campuses, and communities. The Jed media team believes storytelling can change and save lives and is proud to partner with Lemonada Media on this journey. Thank you for joining us to learn more at Jed cares.org slash last day. We’ve worked hard to ensure that our storytelling around suicide is as safe as possible. But we can’t address this issue by tip-toeing around it. Instead of warning who should and shouldn’t listen before each episode, we want to encourage you to press pause if and when you need to. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, watch some cute puppy videos. We’ve even included some quick exercises you can do if you’re feeling overwhelmed on our resource page www.jedcares.org/lastday. Take care of yourself. We’ll be here when you’re ready to press play.
Kevin Berthia: When I shook his hand. It took me about a millisecond to know why and how he saved my life. I knew it had to be him. It was his compassion. I say me is who he is, genuine is that he has a story, his own story of his life. And that’s what saved me, is because he uses the things that he’s been doing his own life. It wasn’t about that. We’ve come from two different worlds today. He was a cop and I was on the other side. Yeah, really, he was. It was that I was human and I was a need. And I was in search of what he had.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is Kevin Berthia, talking about the day he drove to the Golden Gate Bridge with the intention of ending his life. And there he encountered a man in uniform, a benevolent stranger, also named Kevin — we’ll get into that later — who saved him. How? By giving him an opportunity to share his story. And that is really powerful. I mean the whole reason we started this show was that we knew that stories could change lives! Save them even. And this one does that. I mean, it’s an incredible tale of triumph. Compassion. Unbridled Humanity. You’ve got these 2 men from two completely different worlds, suspended 220 ft above the Pacific Ocean, the stakes are life and death. What a story, right? Well, that’s not the story we’re gonna tell.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and this is Last Day.
Kevin Berthia: I met my first responder officer, Sergeant Briggs, on March 11th, 2005. I was 22 years old and I drove myself to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: It was a nice day out, actually, on the bridge that day, but it has started to get cooler in the afternoon. That’s as it usually does.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Okay, I know I just said that I wasn’t gonna tell this story, but I do have to start at the bridge to get the story I want to tell. So here we are. It’s March in San Francisco and we’ve just met our hero: Sergeant Kevin Briggs, who, fun fact, is also known as the Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I worked on the bridge a good 17 years or so out of my career, and 10 of that was without other assistance, so to speak, we only had one officer working around the bridge at that time. So, I would average four to six cases a month. And that was for a very long time. So, it turned out to be a lot of people. And that’s no badge of honor. It’s horrible.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And in addition to doing this work alone for so many years, formal training in crisis intervention was minimal. No one explicitly told him HOW to talk someone off the bridge, because this wasn’t exactly in the job description, despite the fact that it happened… which brings us back to that day.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I was on duty just on their day, received a call of a man on the sidewalk saying that he’s going to jump.
Kevin Berthia: I dealt with abandonment issues and worthlessness my whole entire life. I felt overwhelmed and I felt like I just couldn’t I couldn’t do it anymore. I was tired of living a lie. I was tired of making me believe that I was OK. And I was tired of being everybody’s chameleon. I mean, I was the king of making me believe that everything was OK with me. And I made sure that everybody knew that I was fine because I never wanted anybody to ask me if I was fine. But on that day, March 11, 2005, I woke up. Now I found myself out of control, how I felt, and overwhelmed. And I ended up went where I was in so much pain. I wanted to get out of it and not going to do anything about it. I thought about the Golden Gate Bridge as I put my guys in order to get there. We didn’t have Google Maps or, you know, all these fancy phones. So, I had, you know, old fashioned ask for directions. And I was hoping that whomever I asked would probably, you know, look at me and ask me what was going on. I just had a light going on. I was all well. But I know that if I was asked the right question that I was ready to talk.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The first person he saw was a toll collector. Kevin asked her for directions, hoping she’d look him in the eye. But she was just doing her job, didn’t look up – so he kept driving and eventually made his way to the bridge.
Kevin Berthia: I got out of the car and I left the keys ignition and, you know, I was coming back to the car. I wasn’t at that point. I knew that I was. I was. I was. I was there. And it was about to end. I knew that was I was going to die. I knew, like, it was no turning back from here. I didn’t come here at this point if I got a job this far. I was. I’m not one of these people. I came to the show. I didn’t come here to talk to anybody. But I still, you know, for fifteen minutes, walked and tried to figure out something worth living for. And I couldn’t find anything. Finally, I found the right spot and I looked over the railing and I saw nothing but water. But when I looked in the water for the first time in my life, it was like I saw peace in that water. I saw not having to be a burden I saw and I have to be a failure. I saw it not happen to wake up in the workplace. And I prepare myself for the quarter. I did a couple of steps back and I knew that it was going to be over.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: That’s where we met. I stopped about 50 feet away or so on a motorcycle. As I’m getting off of my bike, he looks in my direction and he jumps over the four-foot rail.
Kevin Berthia: I end up literally jumping over the railing, as I like, hoisted myself in mid-air. That’s when I heard the voice of Sergeant Officer Briggs.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: As he was doing this, I yelled something I remember what I said. I yelled something and he reached down, cocked the rail swung around, slammed into it on the other side, and then landed on that little bitty pipe.
Kevin Berthia: Now, the chord that I turn myself on is the only place on the bridge that has that four-inch chord there. If I had picked any of the places, it didn’t have that chord.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I thought he was gone. I thought we lost him. He jumped too hard to high and everything, but he managed it there. So, as I ran up, I saw the white T-shirt through the slots on the bridge. I thought, wow. Be still here. So, I stepped back and went into my routine. OK, here we go. I raised my hand up. Hey, I’m Kevin. Is it all right? If I come up and talk with you for a while? Uh uh. Not at all. He was mad as all hell, he was mad.
Kevin Berthia: You know, this voice is steadily trying and get my attention. I’m yelling at him for, like, the next ten minutes to stay back. Cause if he gets any closer, I’m telling him I’m gonna I gonna just nudge back. Cause it’s not even a big nudge, I mean, I’m on the other side and railing. Behind me is water. That’s it.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: He kept screaming at me. Don’t come one step closer. You come one step closer I’m jumping and don’t even try to come one step closer. He was just furious. So, I stayed where I was, a good, at least 10 feet away. But with all the noise, it’s difficult to talk there. So, you almost have to yell. None of this is conducive to a good conversation. But I kept on him and saying ‘hey man I’m not going to touch you. I’m not going to grab you. I just want to come up and talk. My name’s Kevin. Can I get your name? And he didn’t tell me for a bit. But then he came up with it and he allowed me to use his first name. Hey, Kev, I just want to come up and chat with you, man. I promise I’m not going to tell this. I just want to find out what’s been going on.
Kevin Berthia: After he tried to get my attention one last time. Something inside me said. Why do you care? Not to him. But on inside of me. Because it’s not like he was like. Like making me feel like I was stupid. Like I was making myself like I was stupid. Cause I was on this bridge, 220 ft in the air. I’m freezing cold. I hate heights, I hate being cold. It’s like I hate myself for putting myself in this position. Like it’s just like all I want to do is get out of pain. I made myself feel put myself into even a worse situation. I kind of let my guard down long enough to where you say we get closer to where we start having a conversation.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: He wanted to talk. So, I just let him speak. And I’d throw a few questions here and there. But really, he kind of laid out, in the essence of a life story that was very tragic.
Kevin Berthia: Like literally I started at the age of five and I worked myself all the way up to the age of twenty-two. And, you know, I got all these things off my chest.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: He was adopted. His birth mother gave him up. Didn’t want anything to do with him.
Kevin Berthia: I talked about everything that I wanted to tell my adopted mom, everything I wanted to tell my adopted dad, everything I wanted to tell my biological mom, my biological dad, everything that I wanted to tell the world. I told him a day on that ledge and he just sat there and he just listened.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: When he got out of high school, he thought, you know what? If I start a family, maybe things will get better. So, he started a family. After some time. Had a child, but his child was born prematurely by a couple of months.
Kevin Berthia: I could, like, literally fit in the palm of my hand and, you know, her being born early. It just, you know, that is where the six weeks of her being in hospital’s where pretty much I died. Because I don’t have the type of job that can be by her bedside. I had to go to work. And every time I left; I didn’t know if she was gonna be alive when I came back. I mean, that’s the type of anxiety I had.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: So now in his thought. What did I do to cause harm to this family, to this child? He couldn’t wrap his head around it. He did this in his mind.
Kevin Berthia: I blamed myself. I mean, I had known nobody else to blame. They didn’t tell me why she came out early. So, it was just taking on all that. It was just too much.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: His baby had to stay in the hospital for a couple of months, but when she was able to come home, so did the bill. Bill racked up to around two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. On top of all this. He just lost his job.
Kevin Berthia: And that, you know, between the doctor bill and losing my job. That’s that was the triggers And I was just done.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: So, in his mind, he’s a burden to his family, he can’t take care of his family on top of everything else. He’s had enough.
Kevin Berthia: But the next ninety-two minutes, like, he literally sat there and listened to me for eighty-nine of those minutes. And he never made me feel like I was rushing like I was on his nerves. Or I was taking too long. He made me feel as if it took 19 hours if it took 24 hours if it took 10 days he was going to sit there and he was going to listen.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: So, as he spoke to me all this time and I asked a couple of questions and we would take some breaks that allow me to think and thinking, what could I give this guy? What kind of hope? What little ray of sunshine could I offer this man to get him to come back over and want to live? The biggest thing that we spoke about was his child. So, I kind of focused on that. Tell me about her. How tall is she? How old is she? What is she like? What is the dislike? And then I asked him, how do you think she’s gonna feel if you’re gone? If you jumped today, not how could you do this to your child, but how do you think she’s going to feel? And also, do you know that if you go today, she has a much greater chance of suicide herself, of losing her life? And it’s true.
Kevin Berthia: He reminded me that I need to be there for her first birthday, her first birthday was April 6, 2005. I went to the bridge on March 11th. I wouldn’t have been alive for her first birthday. I would have missed it. And that’s what he clamped down to because it was a different emotion when I talked about her. That’s I know he listened to me. Like, that’s what got me over the ledge, and truth be told that was going to bring me back, like how I felt like being an as a failure as a father.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I stepped back about 10 feet, give him some time to think about things. And I’m watching him. And I know if he starts looking down at the water, that’s a bad sign. But he didn’t. He kind of looked down. He kept facing the majority of the time, facing the bridge. I’m still trying to think of what I could say. Do you know something? What do you think about today, man? Do you know? I know it’s going tough. I know you had a tough time, but at least you have the opportunity to work on these things. It was what I was about to say. But he looked up and he said, I want to come back over today.
Kevin Berthia: You know, I came up. I finally got enough emotion in me to put my arms up. It was two officers, Officer Briggs and another Officer there, and they gonna raise me up. And I remember, you know, reporters are there and pictures were being taken. I mean, I didn’t know why.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: And when he came back over, I congratulated him. You could see in their eyes. It’s really fascinating because it looks almost like a baby’s eyes. A lot of hope, but there is a lot like a scared look also. Like, okay, I’m here. What now? But I asked him, what did I do that was good, that really helped the situation and what did I do that wasn’t so good? Because, as I said, I want to learn off of every single one. And he thought about it for a second. And he said. You listened. You let me speak and you listened.
Kevin Berthia: Sergeant Officer Briggs didn’t save my life. Kevin Briggs saved my life. That’s whom I was talking to I wasn’t talking to a first responder, that’s why I never even looked up my head stayed down the whole time. That whole entire ordeal, I never knew he was white. I never knew he was a cop. I tell people all the time. I’m from Oakland, California. I’m black. That conversation would have been totally different had I opened my eyes and looked up, probably. Because my idea of law enforcement before that day was bad because I had nothing but bad experiences. It didn’t matter. That is the type of compassion that you cannot teach. You just got to have it.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: So, I ask people, why did it take for him to get up to this stage four cancer of a bridge for somebody to listen? I can go through all sorts of schools and all sorts of training, but if I don’t have the listening skills and the empathy and really want to be there for that individual, you know, that’s what we need to do down here right now. Because we’re losing over forty-eight thousand people in America to suicide every year. And each and every one of us can make a big difference.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: 48,000 people are a lot of people – and yes, this story does exemplify how one person can make a huge difference. But if we’re talking about solutions, is the Golden Gate Bridge the best place to start? More on that after the break.
AD BREAK 1 :
Let’s face it in 2020 has put our mental health to the test. With so much uncertainty in the world. It’s important that we take care of ourselves and the people we care about. That’s why the JED foundation launched the love is louder Action Center earlier this year, with ideas to help us stay calm, kind connected, and active, overstaying safe. Visit love is ladder.org to explore self-care and coping strategies, tips on supporting friends or family members who are struggling, and resources for getting help. You can also make a donation or order love is louder apparel masks and more to amplify some hopeful vibes while supporting JED’s work to protect mental health and prevent suicide. Remember, love and support are louder than the negative noise around us louder than the challenges we’re facing. Learn more at love is louder.org.listeners. I want you to imagine taking your first steps into fall with comfortable, washable, and sustainable products from Rothys. Rothy’s shoes are incredibly comfortable with zero breaks in the period thanks to their seamlessly knit to shape design. I just got a pair of lace-ups and they are so awesome. I love them. First, they are out of this world comfortable and as with all of their shoes, it’s knit from thread made from repurposed plastic water bottles. I just love knowing that my shoes are helping to reduce plastic waste. Vogue, as in magazine calls Rothy’s is a personal obsession and health says they are the most comfortable shoes on Earth, the most comfortable shoes on earth and guess what? They’re both right. They are my most comfortable new obsession and I am all about comfort these days. Plus Rothy’s has come with free shipping and free returns And better yet, Rothy’s are fully machine washable. Every time they need a refresh you can simply toss them in the washing machine genius and so convenient when my kid accidentally spills their grape juice onto my feet or when my dog that you can hear now barking spill something on them as well. Check out all the amazing shoes and bags available right now at rothys.com/lastday that’s rothys.com R O T H Y S.com/last day, style and sustainability meet to create your new favorites head to rothys.com/lastday today.
PART 2 COURTNEY:
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. And we’ve just told the story of Kevin and Kevin, which is a categorically feel-good story. I mean, a person is literally on the edge, a stranger reaches his metaphorical handout, and boom sparkle human magic — a life is saved. But if there’s one person in this world who may be ever so slightly disappointed in our storytelling choices, it’s this guy.
Courtney Knowles: So, I’m Courtney Knowles. I work with the JED Foundation. I’ve worked with JED for about 15 years. My background’s actually in marketing, communications, and production.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You’re also wearing a romper. Please tell us about the romper.
Courtney Knowles: And I’m wearing this romper because, at the beginning of the pandemic, I made a commitment that I would only wear one disease until it was over. And I did not know that meant for the rest of my life. But I’m kind of fine with it now.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And I just I literally just tried to, like, get you. I was like, I see you wearing a T-shirt today. And you were like, Bitch, please. I’m wearing a romper. “Rompers only” vibes work for Courtney. It makes him feel like some sort of fun, costumed, spirited tour guide in a bummer of a place that is largely unfamiliar to me.
Courtney Knowles: I also think sometimes I’m just like a translator because, like, the entertainment media are just media world in general and the clinical, academic, mental health world. There’s just such a divide between those two. And that’s caused problems in the past.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You’ve seen these problems. They generally fall into two camps: The sensationalized portrayal of suicide in movies and TV, and the way it’s covered in the headlines. And sometimes, those two things cross paths. Like, perhaps you remember when a certain streaming network released a certain TV show that centered around a certain number of reasons why. And before that series even came out, there were headlines talking about the devastating consequences of such irresponsible storytelling. So what? Does that mean nobody should ever tell a story that involves suicide? Well, you can. You just have to follow the rules. And when I say “the rules,” I mean an actual 2-page pdf on a website called reportingonsuicide.org that various humans have sent me exactly 725 times, over the last several months and it’s a pretty dense document with a lot of helpful tips that a lot of smart people helped compile. (put together) The TL;DR is that these guidelines are very well-thought-out. For example, avoid sharing the content of a suicide note. Instead: Report that a note was found and is under review. Avoid describing or depicting the method and location of the suicide. Instead: Report the death as a suicide, keep information about the location general. Avoid presenting suicide as a common or acceptable response to hardship. Report that coping skills, support, and treatment work for most people who have thoughts about suicide. Avoid overstating the problem of suicide by using descriptors like “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.” Research the best available data and use words like “increase” or “rise.” This all makes sense for journalists. I mean, the bottom line is: Do not do anything that will ultimately make things worse for someone who’s already struggling with this. So how do we responsibly apply this to our work as here? Where do I find the rules for “making a heartfelt podcast with a largely irreverent host?” Enter Courtney. In an animal onesie. So, like I notice when I’m talking to you in our meetings, we have these meetings and I can see your brain like scanning. It’s like you have this encyclopedia of, like, past experience and anecdotes and like, you know, trap the traps that we could fall into and all that. And so, like what. When we talk about the rules, like, what are some helpful rules? What are some that need to go away? Like, let’s just dig into that for a couple of minutes.
Courtney Knowles: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing that’s important to acknowledge is that a lot of times we’re basing these rules on a very small set of data that we have because in a lot of these areas, we don’t have a ton of research.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Which is problematic because that leads to overcorrection. Courtney breaks it down…with peas. So, the thing we’re doing right now, — naming the bridge — this very thing has been connected to a documented increase in suicides in that location.
Courtney Knowles: If we found out that eating green peas on a Tuesday could potentially make you break out in a rash; we would probably do every kind of research possible in the world before we put the message out there. Don’t eat peas. But if we found out that eating Green peas on a Tuesday could end your life. Then I think we fall into this thing where we’re much more likely to take a little piece of information and just wave it in the air and say, don’t do this. Don’t do this. And. I’m not saying that that instinct is wrong, it just makes it really difficult to make rules because this data or this research that we have about the potential harm in talking about suicide is about really specific situations.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Noted. I mean, this is precisely why we’re working with the JED Foundation and meeting regularly with Courtney and Janis whom you’ll meet next week. She is lovely. They are here to actively call us on our bullshit, which happens quite a bit. Especially when it came to this particular episode.
Courtney Knowles: You all of shook me up a little bit, too, because there are some approaches, we wanted to take the episodes that when you first saw them, I’m like, no, don’t do that. I’ve heard that story a million times. But then when you explain like, no, that’s why we want to talk about it. We want to talk about it because this is every what everybody talks about. So, let’s dissected and I’m not used to working or advising on this format where we have all of these episodes to build out. So, it takes a minute even for me to be like, OK, here to talk if we’re going to talk about a bridge. It’s okay. We’re gonna make it through. It’s gonna be a bridge.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Okay. Real talk – when we shared our outline with Team JED, I thought this nice man in a onesie was going to jump through the computer and SLAP me. Especially when we explained that not only would there be a bridge, but the bridge story would be our FIRST EPISODE. And it turns out, there are some pretty valid reasons for that: ONE. Jumping deaths are a small percentage of suicides. Annually they account for roughly 2.9% of the total 48,000 suicide deaths. But you’d never know that based on how often we hear about them. Why is that? Well TWO) there’s more data on these kinds of suicides. Because people like Kevin Briggs are required as part of their federally funded jobs to document everything. And like we said up top, intervening when someone is about to jump has unfortunately become a part of what they do. That provides reliable data that can be quoted in articles, essays, documentaries, podcasts, what have you. And that attention can lead to a lot of people getting a lot of bad ideas. And Three.
Courtney Knowles: It creates an opportunity that most mean stories don’t have where someone literally could intervene. The ways that people most frequently die by suicide intervention once they pick up the means, once there’s a gun or a noose, intervention is really hard.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Right. What makes this story so profound is not the CHOICE to live or die, but rather, the meeting of these two men. The literal life-changing impact one has on the other.
AD BREAK 2:
I’m Trymaine Lee host of into America, a podcast from MSNBC. Join me as we go into the roots of inequality. It’s an economic injustice and racial injustice. And then when you add health as a health and justice into what’s at stake, people are going to be voting not for a person but for stability into what comes next into America, a podcast about who we are as Americans and whom we want to become new episodes every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Subscribe now.
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ACT 3 – What happened before and after bridge?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. For Kevin Berthia, the story started way before he was 22. He struggled as early as 5 years old.
Kevin Berthia: I went from a period of time where I couldn’t look in the mirror. I don’t even know why. I just hated me I hated myself and I never knew why. Which made it me Which made me even more frustrated because I couldn’t understand why I hated myself so much. It was just like, why, why? Why can I give myself to any approval? Why am I so hard on myself? Why. Why? Why? Why do I never give myself a break? I never could understand it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Y’all. As the mama to some babies THIS right here, this acute self-hatred that Kevin describes – This is one of my biggest fears. Because it runs so deep that it feels untouchable. But I have to wonder if Kevin’s mom caught glimpses of it, you know? Because she definitely kept him busy.
Kevin Berthia: I had games on Fridays and Saturdays all day, and I was in church all-day Sunday. That was my schedule from five to 13, so it was like it was every single day. So, I never had time to really get caught up on how I felt.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Busy-ness is a pretty decent band-aid. Sports, after-school clubs, and church on Sundays meant that Kevin’s days were full, and he only had to be alone with his thoughts at night.
Kevin Berthia: How I really felt about myself kind of stayed hidden in that structure as long as I had the structure. I mean, I was good.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That all changed when he was 13.
Kevin Berthia: That structure was taken when my parents divorced. Everything triggered because then my dynamic changed, my schedule changed, everything about my life changed. You know, at 13, it was like I had to pick a parent. And, of course, like, I’m a boy. I wore my day like my two older sisters. I sided with my mom and my dad got real lost up in the relationship. I literally lost my father in the divorce. Like we became more like brothers than father-son. At the same time that my parents divorced was when I switched from elementary and junior high. I went from elementary where it was in heels. We ran around playing tag all day. I went to a junior high where it was about being tough and people were getting beat up and kids, again, like stomped and talked about it made fun of. And I literally took the anger and I felt about the divorce. And I fit right in with what my environment and all the hatred and agony.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Adult Kevin can connect all these dots – the loss of structure at home, the shift in culture at school — but back then, the problems were overwhelming and relentless. Inside he was crumbling but always kept up the façade.
Kevin Berthia: I’ve never dealt with any of those issues being a black man from Oakland, California, we are taught to keep our issues to ourself and to really just keep our emotions in check so I always made sure to make sure everything was fine with me on the outside, even though I know on the inside I was dealing with a lot of different demons and I was in a really dark place.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Hearing Kevin’s story, it’s easy to assume that the dark place he’s describing hit its rock bottom at 22, on the bridge, that day he tried to end his life. I mean, that’s what we thought. We had no idea that the darkness…was on a loop.
Kevin Berthia: From thirteen to fifteen I had so many different things going on in the bridge was my you know, was literally my eleventh attempt, like you know, my first attempt was when I was 14, the bridge in my 11th attempt at 22.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: After each attempt, Kevin made sure that no one would find out. One time, his uncle left the keys of his truck in the ignition. Kevin got in the driver’s seat and intended to drive it off a cliff. He just didn’t realize there was a guard rail. At home that night, he tried to play it off like it was just dumb teenage stuff.
Kevin Berthia: I went back home and tell my mom I was joyriding and, you know, whatever it and she thought, you know, she just scolded me for a joyride and I got in trouble for that. Nobody knew until about a year and a half ago that that was my first attempt.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Kevin’s mom had no idea that he wanted to die, but she knew something was off. He would get angry and have these outbursts. It was clear to her that he was carrying something inside and that that thing was really heavy. So, when Kevin asked if maybe it was time to meet his biological mother, she agreed.
Kevin Berthia: Meeting my biological mom, it confirmed all the things that I already told myself about how much I hated myself because she never was in a position to take care of me. But when I met her, she was taking care of two kids. So, it crushed me on the inside to notice she had it together. I just got it. I was just I just hated the whole situation. I feel like. Well, why do you take the time you know is she lived in Richmond, California. I’m from Oakland, which is twenty-five minutes away. A whole entire life. I wonder about my whole life. My mom was she was twenty-five minutes away when I meet her. She’s taking care of two other kids; I mean it was just a culmination of so many different things.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: What Kevin didn’t realize was that his biological mom was dealing with her own issues. But all he saw was a woman who was doing just fine, living 25 minutes away — who had chosen not to love him. And that, crushed him. The next few years were just this vicious cycle. He was trying desperately to hold it together but continuing to be set back by the day-to-day stressors of just being a human being in the world. Which felt unbearable on top of all the pain he’d been carrying around for so long.
Kevin Berthia: At the age of 22 years old after not handling any of my issues. I felt overwhelmed. And I feel like I just couldn’t I could do it anymore. I was tired of living a lie. I was tired of making people believe that I was OK. And I was tired of being everybody’s chameleon.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s when he met the other Kevin, a man who saves people on their darkest days, even though he’s never had a dark day in his life – just kidding, (whisper) it is the opposite of that.
BACK TO BRIGGS – OTHER KEVIN’S BACKSTORY
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: We all have a past and things that have happened. But, you know, it affects us. And I didn’t think and I didn’t realize I was suffering from depression. But, boy, did it hit me. You know, it’s the gamut of things.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Quick time out — The Kevin and Kevin coincidence makes for great storytelling but it’s very confusing in an audio format. So, from here on out, we’re just going to refer to these guys by their last names. Okay, time in. So. It’s like Berthia said up top, Briggs quote-unquote saved his life by being exactly whom Berthia needed at that moment. But it’s not an act. Briggs knows what it’s like to suffer in silence.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I do battle depression, been on a couple of different meds, been through different therapies for some trauma that happened when I was very, very young. But I thought here I was. I was in the army and I jumped out of planes, airborne infantry stuff. And then I worked at San Quentin for a while. And then I’m the motor sergeant for the highway patrol and the Marine area, all these macho things to where we almost weren’t allowed to show weakness. You never did. You don’t. You just don’t. But all that stuff boiled up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yep. From the outside, Briggs and Berthia couldn’t seem more different. But there are shocking similarities between them. They both felt this external pressure to push down the pain, to keep their feelings bottled up. And Briggs was a bit of a chameleon himself.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I found that I would go to work and be great. Everything’s fine, but when I went home, I would have a lot of days, right. Just didn’t want to do anything at home. I didn’t have to work, so I didn’t want to go see my two boys. I didn’t want to walk. The dog didn’t want anything. I could sit on the couch for a couple of days at a time.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Briggs had his own laundry list of traumatic events that he wasn’t dealing with.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I had cancer when I was 20 years old, testicular cancer, three operations, and some months of chemotherapy. I lost my mom when she was 49 to cancer, closed her eyes as she passed away. I had a very serious head injury from a crash. Another motorcyclist crossed over. W. Logan hit me head-on. That’s just to name a few.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But even while Briggs was recapping some of the most painful moments of his life to me, he was utterly calm and so kind. You seem like you’re so positive and you seem so like upbeat and you seem so together, you know.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I’m fooling you pretty good then.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, you’re doing a really good job, Kev. You’re really holding it together nicely. Like, do you have bad days.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: Absolutely.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So, I guess my bigger question to that is it seems like this story with Kevin, the other Kevin have such a happy ending, you know, and you’ve retold it so many times. And I’m sure that’s because it’s because it does have a hopeful ending. And why do we want to share you know, the stories aren’t great, right? Are there some moments where you were on the bridge that you revisit less often?
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: Sure. Another time I was speaking with a man who looked like a regular Joe just out here on the bridge, but he was over that rail standing on that cord. I started speaking with him and a very, very nice guy would not tell me his name, would not tell me how we got to this position here, but we talked for half an hour or something, and he turned around three times and shook my hand. But he was always continually holding on with one hand and looking down at that water. Finally, on the third time, he said, Kevin, I want to thank you for everything, but I have to go. And he leaped. 220 feet down. I watched him go. You know, it’s extremely tragic and you will s in my mind when we see something like that. It’s in your mind forever.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I like just you telling me that story. I can’t. It makes me tear up and makes my heartbeat. And I can’t imagine the like the trauma and the stress of seeing that and living that. And not only once, but multiple times. And I’m wondering, you know, you yourself, I’m sure you cultivated this over the years, but like, what was it like that night going home? I mean, how do you go from that moment to your life?
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: That’s a difficult one. I’ve stopped several times. I ride a motorcycle onto the highway patrol. You live a certain mile, miles away. You can take your motorcycle home. So, I would take my motorcycle home every night. I’ve stopped several times and just screamed and sat there for a while.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It was at this point in the interview where I wanted to reach into the screen and wrap my arms around this guy. I mean, I can see this scene he’s describing so clearly — it seems like something out of a movie, and yet, it’s real. It’s this raw expression of pain and rage and sorrow. And it’s such a different person than the one I was looking at over Zoom.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: All the stuff, it takes a heavy toll on us. And I needed to get some help. I just had to realize, OK, I do need some help. Things aren’t right. My quality of life isn’t what I think where or what it is and where it should be. So, it wasn’t until I put it in my mind, OK, I’ve got to open my mind, open my heart and start working on myself. That’s where things started to turn around.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Kevin went to therapy to start turning things around, and that meant shining a light in the dark places and putting words to feelings. It also meant breaking down his own stigma around medication.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I never thought I wouldn’t take medication for mental illness. That’s for weak people and all that. No. Once it’s explained to me, if the synapses aren’t going right, this is what occurs. And now it’s just like my blood pressure medicine and my heart medicine. So what? It’s medicine. And if it’s working, fantastic.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Listen, I love this story. 2 emotionally-repressed men learning to put it all out there and accept the help of others. For Briggs, it was the help of mental health care and medication, and for Berthia, it was finding that one person who would really listen at the moment he needed it most. As Berthia said, this compassion this humanity is what saved him that day. It enabled him to come back over the railing, decide to live, and it was happily ever after from that point on. I’m kidding. That’s completely untrue. And by now, I know you saw it coming. So, I’m sorry I did that to you again. The story leading up to the bridge was complicated, and the 15 years since haven’t been a cakewalk either.
AFTER THE BRIDGE
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So. Let’s pick up where we left off. After Kevin Berthia climbs back over the rail, he’s taken to a local hospital. And the next day his photo lands on the front page of the local paper, accompanied by a triumphant feel-good story. But when Kevin’s mom shows him the photo…of himself…on the bridge, it doesn’t feel good.
Kevin Berthia: I completely broke down and here’s why. My whole entire life, I’ve built up an image to show that to show the world that I had it together, that I was just a jovial kid that had it together, that I was in check of my emotions, that that that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was alive for the party, that I was a problem solver, that I was is all these great, great things. But who drives themselves to the bridge? Like, that’s all I kept saying to myself. And that’s what I thought people would only see as you went to the bridge. You can. Like it is like I stigmatize myself, it was just like. I did not allow myself to and never accept the fact that it was me. I never accepted it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: “Never accepting it” meant never talking about it. Kevin got out of the hospital and spent the next EIGHT YEARS pretending that day never happened.
Kevin Berthia: In that timeframe, I went through a divorce in that time frame with the custody battles. I went to my grandfather, both grandfathers died. I mean, a multitude of things. You know, you thought my life changed, you know, after the bridge. No, I. Things got things went haywire, you know until I finally got it together. Because in 2013, I still wanted to die. I still wanted to end my life.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: As hard as it is to hear, Kevin had 11 more attempts after the bridge. Eleven. By 2013, he had logged 22 suicide attempts in his lifetime. He was just so fucking good at hiding it, and that’s something he’s just now starting to acknowledge. But for 8 years after that day when someone snapped a photo of him on a very tall bridge that went viral, he was searching for something. And it turns out, all roads led back to Sergeant Kevin Briggs. So back in 2005, Kevin’s mom wrote to Sergeant Briggs thanking him for saving her son’s life. And he held onto it for 8 years. Cut to 2013 when the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention decided to honor him with a public service award at their gala in New York.
Kevin Berthia: They reach out and say, well, do you know anybody I know a survivor or survivor’s parent that could present this award? He thought about my mom.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: For health reasons, his mom couldn’t travel to New York, and she knew that Kevin wouldn’t go voluntarily (remember – he wasn’t talking about any of this at this point), but as a mom does, she said yes anyway.
Kevin Berthia: I never talked about that day yet, so she knew that I wasn’t gonna go to New York. So, she didn’t tell me why I was going to New York. She just told me that, you know, she has some tickets and I don’t ask any questions.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: He essentially got his tickets and an itinerary and everything was fine and good until he was asked to do an interview in advance of the event, and everything came out. The whole plot. At first, he was horrified, but his mom did the mom chess moves and eventually convinced him to go, despite the fact that the whole thing made him feel super uncomfortable.
Kevin Berthia: When I met Officer Briggs for the first time and reunited. I don’t know what to expect. I mean, I know I’m out here. I’m going to meet the man who supposedly has saved my life. I don’t know what type of individual he’s going to be. If you don’t want, shake his, you know, kiss his pinkie or. I just didn’t know. But he was singularly when I shook his hand, it took me about a millisecond to know why and how he saved my life. I knew it had to be him.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is where we started this episode. When Kevin Berthia talked so passionately about Kevin Briggs single-handedly saving his life, it wasn’t in a moment of intervention on the bridge, it was 8 years later…at an awards dinner.
Kevin Berthia: I got into that venue and we got there at that table. And obviously, Briggs got up there and I remember it was a jumbo screen. And I was looking at the crowd in the crowd and that picture of me got plastered on a jumbo screen. I remember crowd kind of went they kind of grasped here and I kind of, you know, didn’t know what they were looking at. So, I turned around and I looked at the picture. It was the first time in my life that I and the picture connected and that I connected to that picture. And I accepted that it was me and I pitched it took me eight years to accept that it was me. And I picture that picture. I’ve been everywhere of a tap point. I still didn’t, except it was me. I got on a stage openly that day and I talked about everything that led up to that day, March 11th, 2005, for the first time in my life, I was the person that I had hidden from the world. I was vulnerable. I was on everything that I was taught that a man was supposed to be I was the complete opposite of. And it was so powerful that I felt all these ways to be lifted above me. Everything that I was taught about how to how to be in control of emotions. All that stuff just went out the door. And I just spoke from my heart. And I remember coming down off that stage and I remember there was a lady waiting right up behind right by my table. And I remember coming down off the stage and I remember there was a lady waiting right by my table. And I remember she came up to me and me, and we began to talk, and she was distraught I could tell she had been crying, and it was hard for me to look at her because I’m a very empathetic person she said that, you know, my son Jacob, you know, lost his battle five years ago when I instantly put my head down because I wasn’t ready to prepare for to hear that. It just, it just crushed me on the inside and she said no I need you to look at me I need you to hear what I’m saying. I looked at this woman and she said that Jacob lost his battle five years ago And I haven’t slept in five years, she said. But I’m going to sleep tonight, Kevin, because now I can understand what Jacob was going through. And at that moment, two things happened. I realized that I wasn’t alone. And two, that everything that I’ve been through in my life was so much bigger than me. It was so much bigger than me, because how could the worst day of my life get him by hope? I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away. I knew that I had to make changes in my life. That was May 7th, 2013. I flew back from New York to California. I got back to California and I had to make structures and ground rules for my life because couldn’t I didn’t want to be the guy I got on stage and who was open enough about who he was and then in a lie still. On May 21st of 2013, the first day I woke up, I didn’t want to die. It was a morning I woke up and Kevin Berthier didn’t want to die. I didn’t say the F word, but when I got up, I didn’t want to. I didn’t dread having to get through the day. It was just like a powerful moment. And I said, OK, this is it. Whatever I got to do to have this moment every single day, I’m gonna do it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Today, both Kevins share their stories to try to help other people wake up in the morning, not wanting to die. Sergeant Briggs is retired now. He keeps up his mental health routine and has found a lot of relief with…wait for it…transcendental meditation. Look – it – up. And now he leads training for new officers, to try and help them be as prepared as one can for what he encountered on the job.
Sergeant Kevin Briggs: I will tell folks we all have bad mental health days. We do. But if that goes for a couple of weeks, man, we need to look at getting some help because of our quality life matters. You matter and you deserve the right to be happy. But I know with me, I didn’t want to leave the house. I still get those days, whether that’s anxiety or part of the depression, I just don’t have it in me to step outside. You know, sometimes I go out. I’m just staying inside the day. Other times I’m going to take my dog and I forced myself to get out. And that really, really helps. But you’ve got to want to get better.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Wanting to get better is critical. Knowing how to get better can feel like a mine-field. ALT: Knowing how to get better can feel like a mind-fuck.
Kevin Berthia: It wasn’t until I was 19 until I heard the word mental health. I was 19 when I first heard the word depression like I went 19 years not thinking that I was the only person in the world and I was alone. And I think that if I have moments where I was okay with dealing with those emotions and I was okay to cry, you know, and it was okay for me to just display, you know, anything, anything less than just perfection. Then I wouldn’t it? I would never have gone to the bridge, you know. I’ll never go back to the bridge. Why? Because I’m able to talk about the things that led me to the bridge.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is a really important part of this story that often gets erased if we only focus on the moment of intervention on the bridge. A very long and bumpy road that led to that bridge and the path that followed was also littered with broken glass and hot coals. You can decide to live that day, at that moment, but how do you wake up the next day and the next and the next and the next and decide to keep living? Last season we talked a lot about “the magic formula” – it’s this idea we picked up from Dr. Nzinga Harrison that weaves together all the individualized components that make long-term health possible. Kevin Berthia’s magic formula includes spending time with his family. He’s remarried and they have a big beautiful blended family. It also includes therapy. Every single day.
Kevin Berthia: I have my own support group. I go to I have a compassion class that helps me teach me to have compassion for myself because I realize that I am an empathetic person. I have compassion naturally for humanity for every individual that walks the face of the earth. I have compassion for the problem is I don’t have that same compassion for myself. So, I do a little ton of stuff now. It can’t just be one thing. You have to do tons of stuff.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Doing tons of stuff for almost 7 years now has fundamentally changed the way he functions and most importantly, the way he sees himself. He’s come a really long way from the little kid who couldn’t look at himself in the mirror.
Kevin Berthia: I’m proud of myself. And I mean, that’s what’s so hard for me to say. Like I’m genuinely proud of myself because I didn’t see myself. You know, I’m 38 years old. I’ve never at 20, I said I’ll never make it to 40. Like, you know, I’m able to talk about this. I am able to help people. Like I’m proud of myself.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is the feel-good stuff. Today. This right here. Not 15 years ago. Not one single moment of connection, but decades of really hard and meaningful work. That’s the other critical part of Kevin’s magic formula – purpose.
Kevin Berthia: I believe we are here on assignment. We all have an assignment. Why are we here? If you find an assignment, that’s your purpose. So, if you’re in a dark place, you’ve got to realize that you’re just searching. You’ve got to keep finding. You’ve got to keep swimming. You’ve got to keep going. Because if I were if I would have stopped, I would have missed out on all these great things. This is my life now. Mental health is my life. I found my purpose and it’s my job to help people, no matter what, to find their purpose. Because if you can find your purpose, you are a dangerous individual in this lifetime. It’s been beyond the bridge. It’s been a struggle. Isn’t gonna be a struggle every day of my life. Like but I’ve learned that this stuff is never it will never define me. You can’t worry about the things that you lost because you have enough to get you where you need to go. Like your best days are coming. So, if you’re in a dark place, remember that you’re the light.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I love that. I mean, I’m not sure if this is YOUR experience of the world right now, but things feel…rough. It’s particularly relevant now to hear Kevin say that you’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to keep swimming. You’ve got to keep going. My 6-year-old daughter watches TONS of TV. I mean, tons of it. So, basically, I’m always hearing the sounds of an iPad in the background, and some of it gets permanently stuck in the crevices of my brain and comes out in random moments. The other day, while I was working, I heard myself singing out loud, “Just keep swimming swimming swimming swimming.” It’s from Finding Nemo or Dory or one of those fish, but there’s something to it, you know. All those little fish, under the bridge, swimming, swimming, swimming. Over the course of this season, we’ll keep questioning rules, pulling about harmful media narratives, and talking about meaningful solutions. This week we saw the consequences for 2 men who didn’t start talking about their feelings until they were adults – next week, we see what happens when an entire community is forced to grapple with mental health crises head-on.
Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. Our supervising producer is Jackie Danziger. The associate producer is Giulia Hjort with additional production assistance by Claire Jones. Technical Director is Kegan Zema. The music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Jessical Cordova Kramer and me, Stephanie Wittels Wachs. We are thrilled to partner with the JED Foundation this season and grateful for all their wisdom and support. You can find them online @Jedfoundation. And you can find more mental health resources at jedcares.org/lastday.
If you want to hear more about Last Day, we have a whole first season! Go listen to it wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, Can I just beg you to take a moment to rate, review and subscribe if you haven’t done so already. You can find us online at Lemonada media. That’s L E M O N A D A and you can find me @wittelstephanie.
I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.